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On Writing Fiction

  • By Harry Bingham
  • Published 12/2/2011
  • Fiction

Some tips and advice in a moment, but first a word about me. I trained as an economist and worked as an investment banker in my 20s. I always knew I wanted to write, but wasn’t in any hurry. ‘Later’ was fine. Then my wife got ill. I gave up my job to look after her, and in the process started work on my first novel. That one sold, as did four further ones, then three non-fiction books, and now I’m back with fiction – writing crime for Orion in the UK and Bantam Dell (Random House) in the US. I’m not (yet!) a massive bestselling author, but I have had a decent career and do know what it is to write. So here are some tips. 1) Find space You can’t write unless you have some peace in which to write. Different people are different, so there are no rules beyond that – it’s whatever works for you. I know people who get up at 4.00 in the morning to write. Others who can write with their kids clambering over them. Others who write in pencil while on the bus. Whatever. As long as you have your locked-away time, several hours every week minimum, then you’ll be OK. 2) Know that it’s hard Writing is hard, so don’t worry if it feels that way – a lot. Hard is OK. Hard is part of the joy. (But, by the way, there should be joy too. If you aren’t, overall, having fun with your writing, then give up. Play golf. Buy a puppy.) Mere difficulty though – phooey! And use your feelings. The more you can identify what you’re finding hard, the more you know what you have to work on. 3) You work when you play No, that’s not some Zen koan, it’s just that if you can identify a particular problem with sufficient accuracy – a plot issue, maybe, or something to do with your writing style – then you’ll find your brain works out the solution when you’re doing something else. Time away from the problem can be a key part of solving it. 4) Plan A controversial one this, and not one that’ll work for every writer. But I do think that a lot of new writers who give up, frustrated, end up doing so because they started skiiing down a mountain without bothering to take a look at a map first. You don’t necessarily need much of a map, but most writers will need something. For example, a decent idea of who your character is. Plus a good idea of the overall shape of the plot. Plus an idea of the market for which you’re writing. Writers who start with those things in hand before they start are a lot less likely to find that the whole book collapses into a pudding somewhere after chapter three. 5) Feel free to get help

Again, a tad controversial – not least because The Writers’ Workshop makes its money by selling services to new writers. On the other hand, if you wanted to dance, you’d go to dance school. If you wanted to paint, you’d go to art school. If you wanted to be an architect, you’d better damn well learn something about construction before you start to build your next opera house. So why should writing be different? There’s this crazy idea that all you need to do is sit and write, and inspiration will swoop down on you like a dove. That does happen to some extent sometimes – but it happens a heck of a lot more if you’ve got a really sold basis in craft and technique. So get help. Go on a course. Get expert feedback on your work. Obviously we offer these services (and they’re really good) but it doesn’t matter too much where you get them, so long as (i) you are taught by a real writer with proper books published by big publishers, (ii) you get individual feedback, not just a

set of pre-pack course notes, and (iii) whoever you’re working with is properly plugged in to the industry of agents and publishers. Nothing’s stupider than spending a year or two writing a beautiful (but maybe too quiet? maybe under-plotted?) novel about whatever, getting loads of praise from your tutor – then being utterly unable to sell it. Writing is about writing for readers – and that means for publishers. And again – good luck. Character Writing Tips What do readers want from character? They want entertainment. They want to feel empathy. Above all, they want your character writing to feel alive. Here are our three killer tips on how to achieve that. 1. Know your characters. A massive issue. Listen to the difference between this: Karen felt herself getting angry. Her cheeks flushed and she began to pound the table and shout. And this: Karen felt herself getting quieter and quieter. Her throat felt constricted and dry. She wanted to get up to get another Diet Coke except that she wouldn’t give him the pleasure of seeing her agitated. Instead, she forced herself to quieten down. The calmer she was, the more he hated it. The first Karen is just too bland, too generic – too much like every crummy TV actor getting angry for the camera. The second Karen is not like that. She gets angry in her way, nobody else’s. The writer can write that second character because he/she knows who they’re writing about. They KNOW Karen. So tip one is simply this: the miore intimately you know your character, the better you will write about them. And if you want to know your character perfectly, then try this exercise. 2. Give your characters a hard time If you want to create empathy with your characters, then give them a rough time. PLunge them into a turbulent world early on and don’t let up till the end. It’s sounds so simple, but quite honestly you have at least 50% of good character writing right there. Even a relatively bland, cliched character will cause readers to turn the page if we really feel that character’s predicament. After all, do you really remember much about the hero in a Patterson novel? DO you remember much about the heroine in The Devil Wears Prada? We doubt it. What keeps you reading is the turbulence that surrounds that person. So be nasty. Your fiction needs it! And if you need plotting tips – which is basically how to create turbulence round your characters – then you can get them here and here. 3. Give your characters inner life Another classic mistake is to concentrate so hard on describing what your character is saying / doing / seeing … that you forget to say what they’re thinking, feeling, remembering, sensing. And you need to combine all these things to create a vivid and lifelike experience of being some other person. One brilliant tip is to read a page of your work and underline everything that’s about your character’s inner world. If you go page after page with nothing much underlined, then you’ve got a problem. And it’s easy to fix it – just make sure to tell the reader about your character’s inner life. So simple, but so powerful. You can get more info on this tip here. 4. I know we only said three tips …

… but here’s a fourth anyway. You can only get so much from the internet. Really, you’ll build to the next level if you can get one-to-one feedback on your work from a pro writer. That’s something we can offer. If you’re more of a beginner, then try a writing course (which you can do from home, at times to suit yourself.) If you’ve already got a manuscript that you want feedback on, then for heaven’s sake go and get it. Either way, you’ll get a pro author looking at your work and giving you the guidance that you personally need to develop from where you are.



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